Bush Tries to Save Immigration Bill

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It's indicative of how very badly President Bush needs a victory — any victory — that he plans to make a rare trip to Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon to attend a weekly Republican luncheon. There, he will make a personal appeal to senators on behalf of his bipartisan immigration reform bill, the progress of which came to a sudden and surprising halt late Thursday night after a failed attempt to bring the legislation to a vote. While Bush has previously leaned on Vice President Cheney to make these kinds of congressional entreaties (the President last sat in on a Senate policy lunch in 2002), either Bush's desperation or the VP's lack of enthusiasm for the measure — or quite possibly both — has forced his hand.

The bill — which includes provisions for increasing border security, a temporary worker program, and a path towards legalizing the nation's approximately 12 million illegal immigrants — is a key component of Bush's domestic agenda for his final year and a half in office. It was pulled from the floor Thursday after almost two weeks of debate when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, frustrated by the number of amendments brought forth by critics, called to end debate. The vote failed. "There's lots of support for this bill on the outside, " Reid said before departing. "The problem was on the inside of this Senate chamber. "

Regardless of whether it was division in the Senate, the way that Bush's typically loyal conservative base sparked a movement against the bill by harping on the word "amnesty, " or the fact that he was unable to personally lobby for the bill last week (as he was out of the country at the G—8 summit), the bill's collapse will be seen as a significant administration failure unless the President manages to sway Republican lawmakers at Tuesday's lunch. A GOP senior staffer close to the negotiations over reviving the immigration bill said that Republican supporters are pleased that President Bush is showing some belated commitment to the legislation by traveling up to Capitol Hill. "It's great, it's a big deal," says the staffer appreciatively. "What's he got to lose at this point? He's hit rock bottom."

That doesn't mean he hasn't been working the phones, calling a trio of lawmakers — Sen. John Kyl, an Arizona Republican, Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Democrat from Massachusetts, and Colorado's Democratic Senator Ken Salazar — from Air Force One Monday at around 10 a.m. EST to discuss strategy, said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. "The President understands there are strong emotions on this issue and he's going to go up and listen to the concerns of senators and talk with them about how this is our best opportunity to enact bipartisan immigration reform," Stanzel said. "We feel that we can see the finish line and are within a couple days of a conclusion."

To cross the finish line, however, he'll have to overcome opposition from those who, like Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, fought hard to bring the measure down. Describing the bill as "a lot of flesh, but no bone," Sessions said he didn't see any point in Reid investing more time in debate unless changes are made. "I don't know that he'll want to bring it back unless he's got something new to spin it with," said Sessions. "I'm not sure he would see it as worth his time to bring back an unpopular bill just to suffer the same fate." Reid spokesman Jim Manley said that the majority leader is waiting for Republicans to submit a reduced list of amendments. As he opened Monday's Senate session, Reid maintained, "[If] we see new cooperation and a clear way forward from the Republican caucus, I'll do everything to readdress the immigration issue after debate on the energy bill is completed."

According to Sen. Kyl, he'll have to, for "there's not a lot more that we're going to do this month that's any more important than [immigration reform]." "Surely this is more of a priority than pontificating about Alberto Gonzales," Kyl said, referring to Monday's debate on a one—line, non—binding resolution of no confidence against the embattled Attorney General. "This bill is not dead." It will have to be re—animated fairly soon, though, if there's to be any hope for immigration reform this year. "We kind of need to get this back on track by the July 4th holiday," said one Senate Republican staffer. "Because that would then give the House four weeks to get it through before the August recess ... After that, there's a very short amount of time to complete work on spending bills before the beginning of the new fiscal year [October 1]."

"And of, course, the closer you get to 2008, the issue starts getting politicized more than it already has," the staffer concluded.